ohn Fredriksen’s book on international warbirds is a very welcome addition to the literature, for it goes beyond the conventional approach of most books on combat aircraft, which tend to emphasize only statistics, nomenclature, and operational history. John includes all of these, of course, but he adds a human dimension that enlivens each of his descriptions and lets us see behind the machine to the people involved.
As one reads through the book, three things become apparent. The first of these is the high quality of designers in all countries; the second is the critical nature of timing; and the third is the often overlooked importance of scale.
Fredriksen’s apt capture of the essence of these airplanes is an impressive achievement. He makes you realize just how amazing is the ingenuity of aircraft designers and builders all over the world. It is really remarkable how designers in all countries, regardless of their size, were able to maintain a parity in the performance of their designs over the years, even when the resources of a particular country might not match the resources of another.
There are many illustrations of this phenomenon. If one examines the beautiful biplane fighters of the late 1920s and early 1930s, one finds such sterling examples as the American Curtiss P-6E, English Hawker Fury, Czech Avia B 534, Italian Fiat CR 32, Japanese Nakajima A2N, and Soviet Polikarpov I 15. Each aircraft was the product of its own design studio, and the designers had to accommodate the requirements of their armed service to the engines, equipment, and available materials. All were flown within roughly the same time frame, and all achieved roughly the same performance. A similar situation developed with the several generations of monoplane fighters, both those of the first generation (Boeing P-26, PZL 11, Polikarpov I 16) and of the second (Messerschmitt Bf 109G, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire).
Even well into World War II, when the immense industrial resources of the Allies began to take their toll, Axis designers were able to come up with competitive aircraft, for example, the Focke – Wulf Fw 190D, Macchi C 205, and Nakajima Ki 84. And when the chips were really down, the Germans managed to excel with the Messerschmitt Me 262. Similar resilience was shown by the Soviet design
ers, who managed to move a generation ahead in indigenous fighter design with such capable aircraft as the Yakovlev series of fighters, and do it under the pressure of relocating factories and workforces even as the fighting was going on. In all of these achievements, it is the Olympic spirit of the human desire to excel that stands out.
If one accepts the inherent ability of designers of all countries to come up with comparable aircraft, one next has to look into the matter of timing, which is almost always dictated by political, rather than practical, events. Poland, for example, had one of the most modern air forces in the world in the early 1930s—but was unable to modernize it in time for World War II. France was in the same boat; it had created one of the largest air forces in the world, only to see it go to rack and ruin as a succession of peacetime governments refused to spend the money to modernize it. When at last the funds did begin to flow, it was far too late, and France fought World War II with inadequate equipment and inadequate numbers.
A crucial example of timing may be found in the air forces of Great Britain and Germany. Germany had an advantage, as it could create an air force at the same time that it was creating a timetable for going to war—and could thus be sure that they would coincide. So when Hitler struck Poland on September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe was filled with new and modern aircraft that were designed for the job they had to do.
Britain’s situation was different. It had doddered along for years after World War I with open- cockpit biplanes fitted with fixed gear, two light machine guns, and a fixed-pitch propeller. Fortunately, two far-seeing companies, Hawker and Supermarine, were willing to speculate on the future with their Hurricane and Spitfire designs, building prototypes on spec and counting on the government to recognize their worth. (Coincidentally, at the same time, the Royal Air Force became convinced that fighters needed eight-gun armament and they were so equipped.) As it happened, the Hurricane and the Spitfire began to arrive in sufficient numbers just as the Battle of Britain commenced in 1940.
The case of the United States was different. Not only did it sit out the war for two years—until 1941—it had the advantage of the Anglo-French Purchasing Commission buying lots of aircraft and
building up the U. S. industrial base. And this brings us to the third element: scale.
The aggressor nations—Germany, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, Italy—had a preconceived notion of how aerial warfare should take place. In each case they presumed that they would be the aggressor nation, that they would fight a sharp, swift war against a less well equipped opponent, and would then pause to regroup and reequip.
Their calculations indicated that a first-line air force of 3,000-4,000 aircraft would be adequate for the task. Great Britain and France thought along similar lines. Only in the Soviet Union and, to a far greater extent, in the United States did the planners envision operations on a grand scale. Incredibly enough, in the United States four men (Lieutenant Colonels Harold L. George and Haywood S. “Possum” Hansell Jr. and Majors Laurence S. Kuter and Kenneth W. Walker) would in nine days create Air War Plan Document-1, which would clearly and accurately outline the mammoth scale of American air operations.
Of the three elements under discussion—quality, timing, and quantity—the last ultimately proved to be of the greatest value. Germany and Japan were
trapped by the early successes provided by the quality of their aircraft and the timing with which they were built. The successes merely confirmed their opinion that a small, highly trained air force was all that was necessary. When the tide of war changed, and massive numbers of enemy aircraft opposed them, they began frantically to build—but to no avail. Despite all their efforts (and Germany achieved an incredible 44,000 aircraft produced in 1944), it was far too little and far too late. The Allies’ industrial output (mainly thanks to the United States and the Soviet Union and, to a lesser degree, Great Britain) had so far outstripped them in quantity that the war was already lost. And perhaps fittingly, the length of the war had switched the effect of timing, so that many new designs of the highest quality were now entering frontline Allied service.
It is to be hoped that John Fredriksen’s fine book will be widely read by the decisionmakers in the United States, who might then see that having aircraft of high quality is often not enough; you must also have them in sufficient numbers to overcome a determined enemy.